The Exciting Whiz-Bang World of Museum Technology Conferences
As it turns out, it’s not quite so whiz-bang after all.
While I was preparing over the last several weeks to go to the Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis, I wondered what other people thought we talked about when we got digital strategists, UX professionals, social media rockstars, and other wonderful people who make up the technological fabric of museums together in one place for four days. I was curious myself, this being my first MCN: I’d heard wonderful things about the community, and the program seemed right up my alley as a museum professional who does digital things for the purpose of connecting people to one another in the museum space. But I had some trepidation. Would this be like Museums and the Web, where I always felt a little out of my depths, not quite savvy or experienced enough to catch the drift of the technological terms being thrown around in sessions? Would my sessions come across as cute but not quite up to the challenge of the week?
There was nothing to fear. This year, in this field, when people who work in museum technology gathered in Minneapolis, we talked a little about museums, and a little about technology. But most of all, we talked about people.
Conferences at their heart are all about people. Particularly in our sector, where we stay in touch so much through the magic of social media and the blogosphere, the goal of getting 530 of us together in one hotel for several days focuses on the need for human connection, the kind that only comes from sitting around at a bar, visiting a museum together, singing karaoke until all hours, or going out for chicken and waffles. When you’re sitting in sessions and not having an impromptu confab in the hallway, though, there’s nothing that says those sessions need to have the same human touch.
At MCN, I found my favorite words spoken by my favorite people: words like empathy, accessibility, cultural agency. I found new favorite people and new favorite words and phrases: co-power, citizen expert/expert citizen, inclusive design. From the first night, Ignite sessions focused us on the human beings at the center of our work: Nikhil Trivedi spoke truth to power about creating frameworks opposing oppression in museums’ futures and recognizing the oppression inherent in museums’ pasts. And Sina Bahram–for the first time, but not the last time, this conference–brought the house down with a participatory talk on access, delivered with kindness, humor, and fire. (Kate Haley Goldman posited that Ignite was about “cultural norming within this community, rather than innovation or provocation,” but for some of our home museums, these ideas are still pretty radical.)
In addition to Nikhil and Sina’s charges to us, showing that we could take small steps in the direction of creating new anti-oppression frameworks and accessibility, the fervor not just for theories of human-centered creation but for tangible action items in the direction of making it a reality permeated the conference. Dana Mitroff Silvers and Susan Edwards led a brilliant workshop on design thinking, which begins with empathy interviews, in which we learn our visitors’ needs (their verbs, not their nouns) by getting to know them as people and always asking “Why?” Liz Ogbu’s unforgettable keynote reminded us to meet our audiences on their turf if we want to get to know them better, to find the museum version of cooking together, and to search for the right question to answer rather than first for the right solution. Lesley Kadish gave a brilliant, slideless talk on experiences beyond sight. (More to come when I’m off the plane home!)
So what do museum tech people talk about when they get together to talk about museum tech? It’s not about the collections, or the museums, or the technology itself. It’s how these tools help us to create more human experiences and a stronger humanity. It’s how our understanding of these tools allows us to be better to our visitors, users, fellow travelers, communities, audiences, or buddies (we really need some better words for our people), but that understanding these human beings is the crucial component in all our work. In the year ahead, let’s be better to each other and to our visitors as human beings, and let’s see where those actions have moved the world when we reconvene in New Orleans.
(NB: Most of these reflections represent sessions I attended or followed on Twitter; additional reflections and sessions welcome in the comments. -EF)